Keynote Speech

Design Discourse: A medium for Redesigning Design

Klaus Krippendorff
The Annenberg Scool for Communication
University of Pennsylvania
Presentation to the Society for the Science of Design Studies, 1998.12.6, Tokyo, Japan.
Written 1999.6.1

I am a designer, but wear other hats as well: I teach human communication. I am a cybernetician. And I am deeply concerned with epistemology, especially constructivist epistemology. The latter shares with design the awareness of creating the world we see through our own actions. What holds all of these interests together is language.


By language, I do not mean the system of characters we use to compose words, sentences and books about things outside of us. Neither do I wish to abstract language out of the process of speaking, or separate its speakers form what is accomplishes. The traditional notion of language as a system of representations is far too restrictive for the connections I wish to address.

Clearly, language is the source of conceptions. It shapes our perception of our world and directs our actions to it. For example, language, at least European languages, gives us the option to distinguish between males and females. In finding this distinction natural, we tend to oppress people that fall between these two categories. Or, language provides us with ways of showing respect. From what I have learned, Japanese has far more ways of expressing respect than English does and consequently, Japanese social structures not only differ from the social structures in the West but can appear bewilderingly complex for speakers of English.

It is also I language that we design. We conceive our design problems in language. We talk of them within terms of related experts. We negotiate our proposals with various stakeholders who have their own interests and their own ways of understanding but must be kept "on board" for a design to succeed. To this end, make models, drawings, and presentations, to go along with our speaking --all to convince others that our ideas are worth pursuing. Language is everywhere, even when we create things that others need to understand.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger once characterized "language as the house of (our) being" This suits me as well as place to start. It points to the fact that it is the languaging with others that creates the words we live in and humans we come to be.

His suggestion can be read in it least two ways.

* That language speaks us, unwittingly - Just as fish know little of water yet swim, we too take much of our languaging for granted, especially when communication works. When language speaks us, we talk about things as if language were "transparent" or "invisible." Realizing this leads to the second possibility.

* That we could be aware of our languaging. Cognizant of the role language plays in our being, we may come to understand how language shapes our perceptions, how vocabularies create the objects of our attention how grammar directs our thinking, and, how we relate to each other dialogically. We may also experience different ways of languging and learn to distinguish among distinct discourses.

If language does indeed bring forth the world of which we speak, sa I claim it does, then, using language deliberately is a way of designing our practices of living. For designers, shifting attention form the practice of designing products to designing the languaging that directs this practice, amounts to "redesigning design." This raises design to a higher power. I call the language that designs or redesigns design: design discourse.


What is discourse? In short, a discourse is a specialized way of languaging within a community that is in the process of constructing its world. Let me start with three examples.

Physics can be fruitfully regarded as a discourse It is spoken by physicists and brings forth the very objects of nature physicists can objectively measure, analyze, and theorize in causal terms. Physics constructs a world of causal objects that have no function, no meaning, no mind, and no understanding of how they are being studied.

Mathematics is a rather different discourse. It constructs formal systems that mathematicians explore and expand. Sometimes such systems are used to describe observations that than appear as definite and deterministic as the mathematics of their description. But pure mathematicians are not really worried about applications -as long as the systems they devices are well defined, reasonably closed, consistent and complete, and have properties that interesting to them.

Medicine is a discourse of still another kind. It shares with biology the commitment to functional explanations, but concerned less with describing how organisms work than with finding ways to correct abnormalities. In pursuit of this, medicine has succeeded in categorizing illnesses and injuries in terms of available interventions and creating explanations for why these interventions are effective. Pain, bacterial infection, cancerous growth, the immune system, all participate in such purposeful explanations.

Before I come to design, I want to suggest what discourses have in commonl(*1).

1. Discourses use specialized vocabularies that construct particular objects, texts, and artifacts and bring forth a world. While linguistics, literary scholarship and discourse analysis have analyzed texts without their context, to me, textual matter and artifacts merely constitute the surfaces of discourses.

2. Discourses reside in the practices of community, continuously re-reading its texts, creating its intertextualities, rearticulating its artifacts, and expanding the range of its objects and thereby its world in ways that meaningful to its members. Discourses are not abstract objects; they are embodied in what real people do.

3. Discourse communities institutionalize their recurrent practices. Repeatedly successful ways of languaging tend to become hardened into social norms or inscribed into socio/technical infrastructures for the members of a discourse community to rely on. Typically unaware of the created nature of these institutionalized practice and of the histories and of the histories of their evolution, members of a discourse community tend to defend then against undue variations - as if they were the only ways. Institutions do not discipline a discourse, they also enable things that would not come about otherwise.

4. Discourse draw boundaries around themselves. Discourses thus distinguish their own languaging from that of other discourses, deside on who and how people can become members in their community, and legitimize the concern for the kid of objects they create. Discourses thus preserve their identity in the face of challenges from their outside.

Finally, discourses justify themselves to other discourses. When one discourse needs or fears the validity of its claims, for the individual benefits its practitioners earn, and for the moral value of the artifacts or services it creates.

Different discourses create incommensurable words. Being in one can make conceptualizing the other problematic. For example, the idea of function, which is constitutive of biology, medicine and engineering, has no reality in physics. For its part, physics constructs a coherent universe into which observers may not enter. Designers, by contrast, are, interested only in a world they can enter and alter. These rather different worlds enable rather different human actions.

Just as is true for speakers who do not reflect on their own languaging, discourses can come to speak their community. This prevents its practitioners from realizing how their languaging brings forth the world they come to see. Their artifacts appear to be natural and obviously so. Alternative ways of seeing are unavailable or dismissed. And conceptualizations is considered secondary to "what reality really is." Beliefs in a particular reality exemplify this condition.

Discourses can evolve, intermingle and decline. Discourses can fight each other for dominance. They can cross each other's boundaries by appropriating (borrowing) suitable practices. Discourses are in constant motion and design discourse is no exception.

Design discourse today

We know designers by how they talk of what they do. Generally, designers propose new or improved artifacts that make sense and are of use to others, or even celebrated by them. The ability to provide compelling arguments for their design, to have mastered design discourse, distinguishes successful designers from lesser ones and from non-designers.

Currently, design discourse is only marginally institutionalized. It is taught mainly in under-funded educational programs, very few of which grant graduate degrees. Journals, most of them magazine-like, are few in members. While popular, they do not publish serious design theory or research. Some proposals notwithstanding(*2), there is no widely accepted science of design. Large research and development grants tend to bypass design groups in favor of more established disciplines. Industry is the major financier of design work but treats design mainly as subservient to its own objectives.

Contemporary design discourse also lacks coherence. Some designers talk like another engineers. Good engineers tend to be on more solid ground, however, and tend to "use" designers largely to hide ugly mechanisms with beautiful covers. Other designers adopt the language of marketing implicitly buying into the idea of design as having to add value to industrial products in order to increase their market shares. Their responsibility then stops at the point of sales. Design education often encourages a conception of design as applied art and, hence, second rate. Yet, even the terminology of art carries little weight in industry, economics, cultural politics or ecology. Designers, who derive their concepts and identities from other disciplines, unwittingly let design discourse be colonized.

Finally, design discourse exhibits little rhetorical strength. Knowing a little bit of everything, perhaps in the guise of integrative intents, but without a demonstrable expertise, does not earn designers much respect from those who can bring empirical evidence to the table. Engineers furnish calculations, market researchers come which claborate statistics, and ergonomists provide significant test results. Unless designers can support their work in terms acceptable to the stakeholders of their design, they remain vulnerable to out of hand rejection.

Design discourse proposed

The foregoing is to make us aware of the danger of becoming trapped in the language games of other disciplines and of being spoken by a variety of discourses at the expense of speaking purposefully and reflexively. Let me move to outline what could become a discourse that is unique to design. I will start by drawing two distinctions and then elaborate on what I consider its central concept.

Designers intend to improve the world while living in it. A distinguishing feature of design discourse is the ability to talk of possible futures, to explore ways of getting there, and to see to it that some of them are followed, leaving meaningful artifacts behind. The discourse that supports design therefore cannot be limited to theorizing, to extrapolating past observations into the future, which is what the natural sciences do so well. Nor can it be conservative of normative conditions, as medicine is with respect to the human body. Design must explore possibilities of change, regardless of what others claim. Fundamentally, design discourse has to question what other discourses take for granted. it must open doors that are considered closed. Therefore, design discourse cannot mimic the discourses of the natural sciences, all of which are conservative of their descriptions, seeking unalterable laws of nature or trying to preserve normalcies, regularities or predictabilities. Design discourse has to be at odds with their contentions.

The intent to intervene on behalf of desirable futures draws the discourse of design closer to that of engineering and several other change-oriented disciplines. But unlike engineering, which seeks to realize functional mechanisms or improve their workings, design is concerned with artifacts that must make sense to others. Their expertise lies in making artifacts understandable to stakeholders, useful to users, and improving the lives of many, including that of designers. Design is concerned with how humans interface with technology as such. Most designers are cognizant of the fact that human interfaces are social, political and cultural in nature, and that any new technology alters how we live together. Design discourse must not only create newness. it must also be what we call human-centered.

Human-centeredness should not be confused with ergonomic aims. When ergonomics evaluates efficiency of use, human errors and perceptual biases, not in those of different users. Human-centered design has to embrace the diversity of understandings that users could bring to the use of their artifacts. Pursuing a singular “correct” understanding, be it form the perspective of ergonomics, semiotics, engineering, business, even of a particular designer's intentions, fails to acknowledge other people's understanding of technology and is not human-centered.

My contribution to human-centered design is the development of a vocabulary and methods for designing with the meanings that people, stakeholders, users, even designers, bring to a technology. Collaboration with other design theorists and practicing designers has encouraged me to consider meanings as central to design. The design discourse that is concerned with meanings has come to be called “product semantics(*3).” It is rooted in the remarkable truth that

We do not react to the physical properties of things
but act on what they mean to us

This truth is axiomatic to human-centered design. Its equally compelling corollary


that are not meaningful to those who can bring them to fruition.
cannot exist in a culture

gives designers, who can design artifacts in view of the meanings they may acquire, an unprecedented social significance and a powerful role in discourses on technological/cultural matters. Not only dose the axiom serve to clearly delineate the empirical domain of design and the language that designers are expected to employ, it also justifies design discourse to disciplines that designers need to work with. This astonishing fact turns designers into necessary and highly respected participants in most technological/cultural development efforts.

Built on this irrefutable axiom, design discourse can acquire rhetorical strength that other disciplines can not achieve without a comparable foundation. Well-articulated concerns for meaningful interfaces, backed up by expertise in their design, and armed with empirical techniques that support semantic claims puts designers on par with traditionally“hard” disciplines, who are reputed to “know what they are talking about.”

Thus, an expertise in how artifacts can be designed to acquire desirable meanings-product semantics-gives designers:

* A clearly articulated focus on what has always been the core concern of the design profession. (In the absence of this clarity, it is only natural that design is appropriated by other discipline.)

* An opportunity to develop socially significant expertise in an empirical domain that no other profession has claimed for itself. (If designers do not embrace this domain wholeheartedly and timely, other disciplines no doubt will.)

* The possibility of developing an indigenous science for design, one that nourishes design practices, expand the scope of design and legitimizes its discourse.

* Evaluative techniques and empirical tests of how people learn to interface with artifacts in particular contexts, These procedures are essential to justify designers' proposals. They can become as conclusive as those used by other disciplines, and they can hold their own weight when coming in conflict with other considerations. And

* an explicit moral responsibility for the many levels of uses of technology in a culture. This is a responsibility that was until now merely implied.

In the first issue of your Science of Design Studies journal(*4), Gui Bonsieps suggests that if design theory is not flourishing soon, design might be doomed. I agree. We are at that crossroad. A whole new technology is emerging that poses fundamental challenges to everyday understanding. While some designers may enjoy finding their own names used as brands clothes, others resist this commercial exploitation of the design profession by developing a professional discourse that enables us to successfully engage the emerging frontiers of human uses of technology. I salute your society for having chosen this path. I want to alert you to some additional directions worth exploring.

Design principles to be addressed

Recently, the U.S. National Science Foundations sponsored a workshop(*5) to explore how design might contribute to the development of technology in an age of information. Here are the ten design principles this workshop proposed for funding and as a guide to prepare design for the challenges of the emerging information society. they can also be regarded as milestones toward redesigning design:

* Artifacts-material, informational or organizational-should be designed not only for but also with their stakeholders. This principle calls for designers to invite into the design process all those who care to be involved in the development of a technology. Accordingly, design is no longer the providence of lone geniuses. It has to become a collaborative venture, one that takes place not in an individual mind but in networks of diverse stakeholders. It calls for a language of cooperation and methodologies that respect diverse users as sources of meanings.
* Artifacts should be designed to make sense or be meaningful to their stakeholders. The central importance of meaning for design has already been asserted. This design principle reiterates that designers be driven not by technology but by a concern for self-evidence, self-instruction, natural paths toward competent use, and meaningful human engagement-product semantics.
* Design should concern itself primarily with human interfaces. This principle recognizes the interface as a new category of design problem, one that promises to embrace virtually all that designers had aimed for in the past. The concept of an interface calls for an interactive semantics that semiotics has been unable to deliver. It also responds to the desire for universal access to technologies that exceed users 'understanding. Universal access is an information society's response to what industrial societies tried to solve through mass production: widespread citizen participation and a more equal sharing of the benefits of technology.
* Design should concern itself with all the senses in which artifacts can reside. this principle encourages expanding the scope of design considerations from the stereotypically visual to all other sensory modalities. Virtual reality designs, for example, embrace complex sensory/motor coordinations that users not only enjoy but can also handle more naturally than mono-sensorily conceived artifacts.
The variability of artifacts should match the diversity of their stakeholders' capabilities, needs and conceptions. This principle suggests abandoning the engineering idea of optimizing artifacts with respect to a single function. It encourages instead artifacts that are usable in numerous ways, for different purposes and by different users. Personalization, multi-pathing, reconfigurability, and adaptation to user habits, are ways for artifacts to become diversely meaningful and play different roles in different users' lives. The principle means a radical departure from the old engineering ideal of efficient mechanisms to the new ideal of language-like artifacts.
* Artifacts should be designed to enable cooperation, honor diversity and support conflict. This design principle acknowledges the increasingly social and communicative nature of artifacts and suggests that they be designed to support cooperation among diverse users rather than uniformity or compliance with a “right” way.
* Artifacts should be conceived of as hierarchical structures. This principle speaks against inscribing rigid hierarchies into technologies, which would demand the subordination of users to larger wholes, compliance with prescribed uses, adoption of a single technical rationality, and spontaneity to be curbed. Information favors diversity, open architecture, dialogue and a modicum of chaos. People work best in networks, not in hierarchies.
* Design needs compelling evaluative techniques with public currency. Design cannot succeed without empirical justifications of its claims. justifications are linguistic in nature, and because they concern future human interfaces, they cannot be left to past observation. This has been addressed above.
* Human-centered design entails a second-order understanding. Recognizing that designers understand a technology differently from how users do, Ôthis principle makes designers' understanding of users' understanding a key feature of human-centered design discourse. This kind of understanding is absent from technical and natural science discourses. The understanding this requires is an understanding of users' understanding, an understanding of understanding, or a second-order understanding for short. This understanding is qualitatively different from ordinary first-order understanding, say, of a technology. It has become an increasingly important feature of design discourse.
* Design should continuously delegate itself. Information technologies - from intelligent gadgets to the Internet - provide their users with spaces to create their own worlds, to be designers in their own right. This clearly undermines design as conceived in the industrial age. Now, however, we realize design as a common human ability, one that can no longer be held hostage to a privileged profession. Especially in the design of information products, designers cannot but delegate design practices to users. Under those conditions. designers can do no more than staying ahead of their stakeholders.

All of these new design principles reside in language and highlight the strategic importance of design discourse in the redesigning of design.


Let me close by expressing my gratitude to Professor Shutaro Mukai and the Board of your society for inviting me to address your inaugural meeting. I am honored to be here and pleased that your society is dedicated to furthering a science that promises to develop fundamental insights, concepts, methods and research results in support of design. My hope is that the science that will emerge dose not mimic other sciences but acknowledges the unique kind of languaging that distinguishes designers from other professions -- design discourse. A science that does not reflect on how it languages its objects into being is doomed to be entrapped in it and so would be the profession it intends to support. Design discourse is quite unique among other discourses, as I hope I have demonstrated, and it requires nourishing attention and occasionally tough decisions. When I return, I hope to learn from your explorations. Thank you.

(*1) See Klaus Krippendorf(1995), Redesigning Design, An Invitation to a Responsible Future. Pages 138-162 in Paivi Tahkokaido and Susann Vihms(Eds), Design-Pleasure or Responsibility? Helsinki: University of Art and Design.

(*2) A much cited propsal is Herbert A Simon (1969), The Sciences of the Artificial. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Donald A Schon (1983), The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books, might be mentioned in contrast.

(*3) Klaus Krippendorff (in press), Eine Einfuhrung in die Produktsemantik. In Reinhart Butter and klaus knppendorff, Die Semantische wenda, Eine neue Grundiage fur das Design. Frankfurt:Foem Verlag.

(*4) Gui Bonsiepe(1998), Some Virtues of Design. The Science of Design Studies, 0:32-35.

(*5) New Design Principles, pages 27-32 in Klaus Krippendorff (1997) (Ed.), Design in the Age of Information, Raleigh, NC:North Carolina State University.